August 25, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

Even most Israelis don’t know that the hundreds of millions of emoticons, animations, 3D effects and sounds that now jazz up e-mails all over the world, originate in Tel Aviv.

I envy Ofer Adler. Not only is he the CEO of IncrediMail, one of Israel’s top web success stories, but he also gets to make millions of people happy every day, every time they use e-mail.

IncrediMail applications have been downloaded more than 80 million times by people in over 100 countries. You know the program. It’s the one that inserts those cute little animations, emoticons, caricatures, flashing words, hearts, stars, 3D effects, sounds and other cutesy touches in html e-mail messages.

“In any given month, IncrediMail is used to send out about 300 million messages,” Adler tells ISRAEL21c. Not only that; nearly 10 years after it was first introduced, IncrediMail products are downloaded 1.7 million times each month. How successful is that?

“I think that after Outlook Express – which comes included with Windows – we have the most popular e-mail client application. We certainly have more users than Thunderbird [the popular tool that helps people to manage e-mail, instant messaging, social networking messages, etc.],” says Adler.

Giving people what they want

So how did IncrediMail get to be one of the most successful applications ever? “By giving people what they want,” Adler replies.

One of the company’s prime missions has been to make sure that the animations and designs that are inserted into messages integrate smoothly with e-mail, so that they’re easy to use. “We don’t use attachments for our designs, everything is in HTML,” ensuring a light footprint that’s fun to use, he adds.

The beta version of IncrediMail’s second iteration – called IncrediMail 2 – is due out any time now, and it contains many improvements, says Adler. It’s faster, and you can use your own photos for the decorations and animations.

Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest group of IncrediMail users is not kids, but adults who won’t deal with an application that causes them unnecessary tech trouble.

“Sixty nine percent of our users are over age 32, with many in their 40s and 50s,” Adler says. That means that the application has to be easy enough to handle for those in that non-techie demographic. Incidentally, he adds, the folks in that demographic are more likely to click on web ads, which helps IncrediMail to make money.

Hi! Yo! – branching out from e-mail

Nowadays, IncrediMail is for more than just mail. Because e-mail is already passe among the under-20 crowd – they prefer to text each other using messenger programs – Adler’s team developed HiYo , which brings the same HTML tricks to MSN and Yahoo Messenger. It will soon also be available for AOL Messenger – which is descended from another Israeli web mega-success – ICQ.

Over the past year, says Adler, more than six million users have installed HiYo, without too much advertising by the company.

“It’s very viral,” he says. “One user sees it in an instant message and immediately clicks to download and install it, and so on. About 90% of HiYo users come to the program in this manner.”

Another member of the IncrediMail family is PhotoJoy, a desktop program that lets you take your digital photos and turn them into fancy screensavers or desktop ‘gadgets’, so you can finally do something constructive with the hundreds or thousands of digital photos on your computer, or at photo sites like FlickR and Picasa.

The Tom Cruise IncrediMail legend

According to one version of the “IncrediMail legend,” Adler, along with his cousin Yaron Adler (now president of the company), first thought of the idea for IncrediMail after seeing the 1996 Tom Cruise hit movie Mission Impossible.

Ofer, who was working in the Tel Aviv Stock Market at the time, thought that an e-mail Cruise sent in the movie – where a 3D envelope seemed to float away when the star sent a message – was one of the coolest things he had ever seen.

“Partially true,” says Adler of the story, which has been repeated in several media outlets. “We were somewhat inspired by that Tom Cruise e-mail, but we had other inspirations as well.”

However, the creative pattern was set early, and the IncrediMail design department follows film, as well as trends in other spheres of popular culture, and relies on user feedback to come up with new cool effects.

Another incredible fact in these times of globalization and outsourcing, almost all of IncrediMail’s 110 employees work in Israel, at the corporate headquarters in the Tel Aviv high-tech zone of Ramat Ha’hayal.

Giving it away for free and raking the money in

“We’re lucky enough to be able to do everything we need from Israel, since all of our business is on the web,” Adler says. “If we were a business-to-business type of company that had to call on clients all day long, if would be different. But we deal strictly with consumers over the internet, so being located in Israel is not an issue.”

And being an Israeli company has not had any negative impact on business, Adler adds. “Not that we try to hide the fact, but even most Israelis aren’t aware that IncrediMail is an Israeli company, much less people abroad. When I drive to various places in Israel and people see the IncrediMail bumper sticker on my car, they ask me about it, because they’re familiar with the program and enjoy it – and they’re shocked to find out we’re located in Tel Aviv.”

Another interesting piece of information is that even though the company’s products are all available free (although there is a premium version of IncrediMail, with more capabilities and no ads), the company is earning extremely well, thanks to advertising partnering programs and monetized search queries using Google and other web search engines.

Founded in 1999, IncrediMail has been traded publicly on Nasdaq since 2006, and is profitable, with a positive cash flow, operating at zero debt. And all that comes from putting smiles on people’s faces and adding a bit of fun to their lives. There’s a lesson there somewhere for all us.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director